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Six months later
Alexa raised a mojito in a toast. "Love sucks."
Nat sat next to her at the square, white linen-covered table. She lifted a glass of chardonnay. "I'll co-sign on that."
"Me too." Cori, also with them, slurped a frozen drink.
Laughter and conversation echoed in the semi-darkened private room at Club Escapade. The Breakup Bash — a party to help women get over one man and move on to a better one — was in full swing. Women mingled around the corner bar and danced to Beyoncé's latest hit in front of the DJ booth next to a gold-curtained stage. The Hot Body Hunks male revue show was scheduled to perform a little later in the evening.
Alexa struggled to match the upbeat atmosphere. Who would've guessed the three of them would end up sharing the same bad luck with relationships? Nat had gone through a nasty divorce. Cori no longer lived with her boyfriend. But she was the dumbest one of them all. On her wedding day, her main concern had been making sure she had something old, new, borrowed, and blue. Meanwhile, some woman named Karma Sunflower had permanently borrowed Brad.
A couple of months before the wedding, when he'd developed an interest in health and started shopping at the organic market, she'd viewed it as a positive. She'd even cut back on French fries, given up sugar, and eaten tofu in solidarity with him. But all along, he'd been playing her for a fool. She should have grown more suspicious when boxes of his so-called favorite granola cereal disappeared in a couple of days instead of weeks. No one needed that much fiber, including full-of-shit Brad.
Alexa sank back into the black padded chair. The brilliant solitaire on her finger had kept her enthralled with the promise of a perfect future. What a joke. "Maybe coming here wasn't such a good idea. This is one of the last places that I hung out as a delusional bride-to-be."
"No." Cori plunked down her glass, and a slice of pineapple fell off the rim. "This party is just what we need. Maybe some Hasta la Vista cocktails will put us into the mood. Or maybe champagne. Ooh, that sounds even better. I'll get some." She sprang from her seat. Purple and green strobe lights reflected in her neon-blue hair. The narrow skirt of her short yellow minidress, and blue death-defying, high-heeled pumps, shortened her steps.
Nat flipped her hair then straightened the shoulder strap of her burgundy top. Her gold-and-silver earrings reflected the lights. "Good thing we took a Lyft and didn't count on Cori being our designated driver. She's really celebrating tonight."
"She's supposed to help me pack tomorrow. Too many hasta la vistas and I'll have to count her out."
"Staying distracted is her way of handling things. At least she's not depressed anymore. We all needed this." Sadness flashed in Nat's eyes.
Alexa felt her pain and then some. Maybe consuming multiple hasta la vistas was the right idea. Alcohol might help her forget her humiliation, too.
Nat brought a plate of cubed cheese and crackers closer to them. "Are you sure about this moving thing? Seattle is a big step."
"I'm embracing new horizons."
Nat munched on a cracker. "New horizons are about running toward what you do want, not running away from what you don't. You've never talked about leaving before."
"I'm not running. I need a change of pace, and this job offer is too good to pass up. NorthStar only transports freight in the northeast. Vannett Incorporated operates nationally. As the head of carrier relations for them, I'll have more responsibility and a bigger paycheck."
"And you won't have to deal with Brad and his hippy-dippy side piece when they show up six weeks from now."
"That's an added bonus."
Seeing her ex anytime soon was the last thing she wanted to do. As far as meeting Karma face-to-face, she'd imagined everything from slapping her to forcing her to eat a pound of sugar. Non-organic, of course. But most of her anger was at Brad. He'd not only betrayed her as a fiancé, but also as a friend.
Though their fathers had been business associates for years, their paths had not crossed until they were sixteen. Brad had attended school in London and rarely came to the States. When he'd visited his father and mother for Christmas three years ago, she'd been tasked as his plus one for numerous social events. They'd gotten along well. Six months later, he'd joined NorthStar's marketing team, and their relationship had progressed.
She and Brad had been able to talk about anything and everything ... at least, that's what she'd believed. He should have told her, without all the drama, that he didn't want to get married. The revelation would have stung, but she would have forgiven him, even respected his honesty. What he'd done instead felt like a stab in the back as well as the heart.
Nat nudging her arm pulled Alexa from the past. "Hopefully all this change includes a new man." She brushed crumbs from the lap of her skinny jeans. "You're twenty-seven, hot as hell, and single. Don't let opportunity pass you by. Indulge."
Dating. Not this topic again. "I'm here with you guys to see the Hot Body Hunks. Doesn't that count?" The poster she'd spotted near the entrance featured a photo of twelve shirtless, muscular guys wearing jeans. Unfortunately, Raphael the Dream Maker wasn't among them. Seeing him again might have lifted her spirits. "Love those earrings. Are they new?"
"You know they're not. You bought them, and you're wearing the same pair. Stop trying to change the subject."
Alexa fiddled with one of her gold-and-silver earrings. "I'm not interested in falling in love again."
"Who said anything about love? This is about leaving a total dick for more satisfying cock and less worries. It's about getting rid of jackasses who aren't worth a damn and most important of all ..." Nat held up her wineglass. "Freedom!"
The women around them whooped and applauded.
Alexa pulled down Nat's arm. "Will you stop."
"No. You stop. It's perfectly okay to ride a man into a better future. Preferably in the midst of an orgasm. That's what this celebration is all about, and you need to get on board." Nat plucked a condom, with Do Me printed on the red packaging, from the floral centerpiece. "That's why it's called the Breakup Bash."
* * *
Rafe Dumond patrolled the black-walled, white-tiled lobby of Club Escapade.
The muted thump of dance music reverberated in the low-lit space.
A group of women sauntered past the floor-to-ceiling, faux cylinder waterfalls glowing in various shades of green and blue, heading for the red carpeted hallway on the other side of the expansive space. It led to Escapade West, an area for private parties. And tonight, it had been rented by two recently divorced party planners, who'd wanted to uplift women going through relationship issues. They'd decided to host a Breakup Bash.
Earlier, he'd caught a glimpse of a dark-haired woman in a purple minidress walking in that direction. His imagination had filled in the rest. Flawless brown skin. Beautiful dark eyes. Lush, plum-colored lips he still craved after just one kiss. Damn. He never should have agreed to settle that poker bet he owed his business partner, Shannon, by coming out of retirement and dancing with the Hot Body Hunks during their performance at the club seven months ago. Even with all the time that had passed, he still couldn't forget the bride-to-be he'd brought on stage for a lap dance. No. The woman in purple wasn't her. She wouldn't be at an event celebrating breakups.
She was probably a happy newlywed, living in a mini-mansion in some expensive gated community, planning how many kids to have with her suit-and-tie husband. Why couldn't he stop thinking about her? He even remembered her name. Alexa.
Rafe spun around and pushed open the double doors behind him. As he stalked into Escapade East, the main part of the club, he shoved the memories of the woman who haunted him into the recesses of his mind. The vibration from pop music and the energy from the partiers waved over him.
Colorfully dressed go-go dancers on platforms high above the dance area hyped up the crowd. Business boomed at the four neon-lit bars interspersed along the outer edge. Every private booth upstairs, as well as the tables below surrounding the dance floor, were full.
Pride swelled inside of him. Four years ago, he and Shannon had both sunk their savings into converting the two-story, downtown corner building into a place featuring the best DJs, biggest dance floor, and multiple bars serving up the latest trends in alcoholic drinks.
Many of their acquaintances had doubted that his past as a stripper and club promoter, and hers as a fashion model, would allow them to succeed. Hard work, along with the strength of their friendship to survive the rough spots, had earned them the right to tell the haters to go fuck themselves. They'd established Club Escapade as one of the hottest places for twenty- and thirtysomethings to party in the D.C./Maryland/Virginia area.
"Rafe, this is Xan." The head of security's gravelly voice came through Rafe's headset. He pressed the button on the small device clipped to the waistband of his navy slacks. "Go ahead, Xan."
"The guy we had problems with in the VIP section is under control. The rest of his boys in the bachelor party are tipping extra to make up for the beef he caused."
"Good. Make sure they stay in line." The guy in question had grabbed one of the servers, going beyond trouble and crossing into the territory of pure asshole. No one disrespected the staff, not on his watch. "If the guy screws up again, he and his friends are gone."
The opening lyrics of a popular rap song brought a larger crowd to the dance floor.
"Rafe." Shannon's voice came through the earpiece. "I need you in the West. Now."
Surprise. Something was up with the Breakup Bash? What could possibly go wrong with endless rounds of alcohol and a room full of people with an axe to grind? "On my way." He hustled through the lobby, then down the red carpeted corridor.
He'd wanted to take a pass on booking the party at the club, but Shannon had insisted it would boost business. She'd believed the attendees would wander from the West to the East, searching to pair up with someone for a good time.
Sure they would. A wry huff escaped him. He'd read what was printed on the party favors. I Got Problems but My Ex Isn't One of Them. The Breakup Diet — Two Hundred Pounds of Ugly Weight Gone and Counting. Then there was the broken heart-shaped cake. It featured a marzipan figure of a woman booting a man off an island. Her red stiletto appeared so far up the male figure's ass, that if the couple had been real, the poor guy would have tasted her shoe size.
He nodded to the bouncer at the door and stepped into the room.
Shannon saw him right away. As she hurried from the bar, her ebony ponytail swung behind her shoulders. She carried off the dark slacks and bronze shirt they wore as management like a glossy fashion statement, but her expression was all business. "We have a problem. Only four of the Hunks are here."
"Where are the rest?"
"Stuck in traffic on their way back from another gig." Her light brown eyes narrowed with a frown. "I can't believe their manager screwed us like this. He knows their performances here take priority."
But double-booking shows brought in more money, and greed was a strong motivator. If the Hunks' manager believed the group's long-time association with the club entitled him to endless generosity, he was making a huge mistake.
Rafe led the way as they moved along the perimeter past a corner bar. "The guys that are here can start the show off. Tell them to pull something together."
She released a derisive snort. "They're all new, and one of them is so nervous, he's tossed his cookies twice." She glanced at her gold bangle watch. "We've already delayed the show for thirty minutes. The event organizers are worried because the crowd is growing restless. Free food and champagne will only appease them for so long."
As if they'd heard her greatest fear, the audience started chanting for the men to come on stage.
"This is a disaster." Shannon threw up her hands. "I'm the one who recommended the Hunks. We'll get blamed for ruining the event. You have to do something." Her direct stare held more than a suggestion.
"Wait a minute. You want me to suit up again as a Hunk?"
"You did it seven months ago, and I know you enjoyed it."
Women screaming for him. Seducing the audience with just his eyes and a smile. Hell yeah, being up there had brought back the rush he'd loved so much when he was younger. "That was to settle our bet. I retired from performing five years ago. Besides, we have a full house. One of us has to keep an eye on the East."
"We can turn floor operations over to Xan for the night. But I understand if you don't want to do it. Working it in your thirties isn't as easy as it was when you were in your twenties. You're not up to performing on short notice."
Not up to performing? At thirty-two, he could still make up a dance routine in his sleep.
Shannon blinked with the same neutral expression she wore when she had a winning poker hand.
He wasn't falling for it. Raphael the Dream Maker had officially retired. Again. Now he was just Rafe Dumond, club owner. "I'm not going on stage."
"Please, Rafe." Shannon squeezed his arm. "We just have to keep the crowd satisfied until the rest of the group arrives. It shouldn't be long. Practically everyone here is posting on social media. A bunch of negative reviews will really screw up our reputation."
Women at a nearby table struck sexy poses for a group photo.
Shannon was right. Hashtag eventfail was the last thing they needed tied to the club. "Tell the DJ to stall with more line dances and giveaways. I need at least twenty minutes with the guys to come up with a new opening. After that, we can fill in with solos."
"We?" Shannon followed him out. "So you're dancing a routine, too?"
"Fuck no." He removed the headset and handed it to her. "The days of me wearing a G-string are over. I'm their MC."CHAPTER 2
Nat chair danced and tossed condom packages to Alexa.
With an eye roll, Alexa stuffed one in the small purse attached to a gold chain circling the waist of her purple minidress. "Fine. I took one. Now will you leave me alone?"
"I'll think about it." The gleam in Nat's eyes was all smart-ass. "Everyone's raving about the cake on the buffet. Maybe that's what's holding up Cori. It shouldn't take this long to find champagne. I'm going after her. You coming?"
A remix of a familiar group dance song blasted through the speakers.
The rhythmic beat prompted Alexa out of her seat. "Nope, but bring me something back."
Alexa joined the crowd forming up in lines on the floor. She mimicked the other dancers and stepped to the left then back. Nat needed to stop obsessing over getting her laid. It wasn't that she hadn't tried to move on, but the two disastrous encounters she'd had since the failed wedding were enough.
The first, a blind date with the son of a woman her mother went to yoga with, had been as much fun as watching paint dry. The up-and-coming bank executive had been obsessed with driving her around in his new Tesla and bragging about his power to hire and fire employees. The cute guy she ran into at the gym every morning seemed like a better choice. Nice smile. Deep, sexy voice. Bonus points: he didn't talk about his job nonstop, had his own apartment, and smelled good even after a workout. Then she'd kissed him. Nothing. Nada. Not even a spark.
As Alexa danced, she put a little more sass into her hips. Soon her fantasies with her battery-operated boyfriend wouldn't be enough to cut it. She needed the real deal — a hot, toe-curling orgasm. Too bad a man was required for that type of satisfaction. She stepped on a flyer advertising the Hot Body Hunks. An image of Raphael the Dream Maker, dancing shirtless, appeared in her mind, a stellar pack of abs emerging as easily as his sexy grin. Her most naughty vibrator fantasies often included him. Who was she kidding? They always included him. Exploring his smokin' body, for real, would knock the lust dust from her vagina.
The DJ spoke over the music. "All right ladies, I've got prizes. The first one is for a spa day package." That sounded wonderful. Alexa dug a red ticket stub from her purse.
The number called didn't match it.
Maybe Nat or Cori had gotten lucky. She wove through the crowd on the dance floor and scooted past chairs. An empty table greeted her. Where were they? Were they checking their tickets? She sat down and sent a text to Nat and Cori about the drawing.
The answers Busy and OK buzzed in simultaneously.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The First Rule of Hook-Ups"
Copyright © 2018 Nina Crespo.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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